Cabinet Observations

By Julian Dierkes

[I had begun writing this post on July 3, i.e. just before PM Khurelsukh’s cabinet was announced. While the speculation about appointments has been overtaken by that announcement, perhaps some of the thinking behind cabinet appointments will still be of interest. Under the first three headings, “Canadian Criteria”, “Context”, and “Speculation” I have left my pre-announcement writing in place. The end of the post, “Comments” was written after the announcement.]

Now that the election is over, returned a strong majority, and PM U Khurelsukh has already been elected in parliament, it is time to think about the makeup of his cabinet.

Because the recent constitutional amendments have changed the parameters around selection as a minister by limiting Khurelsukh to an additional four MPs to be appointed to parliament, perhaps it is worth briefly looking at criteria for ministerial appointments.

Canadian Criteria

Following an election (but also when cabinet shuffles seem imminent), a very popular game in Canada is speculation about likely ministerial appointments.

In the Canadian context, cabinet members are always almost MPs, though they do not legally have to be. Cabinets are also very large, PM Trudeau’s cabinet at the moment has 37 members out of 338 MPs. Modifying a Mongolian expression, that’s a lot of double parkas! Cabinets are large for many reasons, including a balancing of the criteria below, but they are also an opportunity for governments to signal priorities by up/downgrading/creating/eliminating certain portfolios. The Trudeau cabinet thus includes a “Minister of Middle Class Prosperity” for example.

Some of the criteria that arise in speculation:

  • Seniority of MPs: important to have some “seasoned” parliamentarians, but also important to introduce fresh faces, offer “career development” opportunities for up-and-coming politicians
  • Regional representation: beyond just representation of predominantly English- and French-speaking parts of Canada, it is thought that there should be at least one member of cabinet who can speak for specific regions.
  • Subject matter competence: some MPs may offer particular competence in particular areas, especially for portfolios like Justice, Health or Defence.
  • Political competence: some portfolios are seen to be especially challenging at times, so minister appointed may be thought to be especially good communicators or managers of large bureaucracies.
  • Gender: For Prime Minister Trudeau especially, a gender-balanced cabinet was important.

Interesting to think about such criteria weighing on PM Khurelsukh’s mind.

Context: Constitutional Amendment

Given November 2019 constitutional amendments, there is some possibility of the relationship between parliament and cabinet being significantly reshaped. Why? Because in addition to PM Khurelsukh who also just won his seat in parliament in this election, only four more MPs can be appointed to parliament.

Some of the intention behind the reduction in double deel-appointments was to strengthen parliament as a deliberative and legislative body that may act somewhat more independently of the government and also provide somewhat more oversight. The super-majority that the MPP won makes that somewhat less likely, but still, the possibility is there, especially with the large group of new MPs coming into parliament for the MPP (27 of them). These new MPs may not be looking at any reasonable chance to be appointed to cabinet, so they might look at their parliamentary work in a different light.

Context: Khurelsukh Cabinet

11 members of Khurelsukh’s cabinet were re-elected.

  • Cabinet Secretary L Oyun-Erdene
  • Finance Min Ch Khurelbaatar
  • Min of Defence N Enkhbold
  • Min of Energy Ts Davaasuren
  • Min of Education, Culture, Science and Sport Yo Baatarbileg
  • Min of Roads and Transport B Enkh-Amgalan
  • Min of Foreign Relations D Tsogtbaatar
  • Min of Mining and Heavy Industry D Sumiyabazar
  • Min of Labour and Social Protction S Chinzorig
  • Min of Construction and Urban Development Kh Badelkhan
  • Min of Health D Sarangerel

Even if Khurelsukh were to decide to rely on cabinet veterans, only four of these would be candidates and at least seven of them will not re-join the cabinet.

Speculation

Compared to the Canadian criteria I listed above, what might the selection criteria for appointment by Khurelsukh be?

  • Competence
  • Intra-party politics
  • Not regional balance
  • Probably not gender

Some of the Canadian discussion would focus on “star performers” in a previous cabinet who would be reappointed or “promoted” to a more visible or important portfolio. Who would be the star performers of the past Khurelsukh cabinet? Obviously, my sense here is coloured by the areas that I follow particularly closely. I do not have any insights into how these candidates might fit into internal party dynamics.

  • Ch Khurelbaatar. He seems to have navigated the threat of a fiscal default successfully, negotiating with the IMF without really conceding much in terms of austerity measures or anything like that. As such he has been unusually visible (to me at least) as a finance minister.
  • D Tsogtbaatar. Like his predecessor, Ts Munkh-Orgil, he has been competent as a foreign minister. His greatest success may be what seems to be a reasonably harmonious relationship with Pres. Battulga, an important strength as foreign policy is one of the areas that the president can assert himself in and this particular president has asserted himself. Having said that, Tsogtbaatar has not been terribly noticeable for any new initiatives, but perhaps the last few years have not been a time for that.
  • D Sumiyabazar. Perhaps the greatest surprise to me in the Khurelsukh cabinet. This former wrestler had not been particularly noticeable as an MP, but really seems to have embraced his ministerial role, seems to prepare well, presents well at international meetings. Born in 1974 he might fit Khurelsukh’s desire to signal a generational transition though the other two are only marginally older (born in 1968 and 1970, respectively).
  • L Oyun-Erdene. He is younger yet again, born in 1980, thus representing a new generation. He has been very active as cabinet secretary, a role that surly requires the trust and support of the prime minister. The Vision 2050 that he has been involved in producing signals some bigger ambitions, but he might also want a specific portfolio rather than the broader managerial role of the cabinet secretary.

Comments

So, two out of four MPs reappointed into their former positions (L Oyun-Erdene as Cabinet Secretary and Ch Khurelbaatar to Finance) is not so bad for speculation.

I had not guessed D Sarangerel’s reappointment, albeit as Min of Environment and Tourism. This strikes me as an unusually “Canadian” cabinet appointment as it seems to be primarily a reward for her good performance as Min of Health and the main spokesperson on COVID-related measures for the past several months. Given her prior career as a journalist, she was not a specialist in Health, nor is there any obvious link to environment or tourism, perhaps this was primarily simply a reward.

[July 16 update:]

Alert Twitter follower Javkhlan noticed my mistake in seeing only three MPs in cabinet. He’s right of course, that there are four MPs, the fourth being Nyambaatar who has come in as Min of Justice and Internal Affairs. The difference between him and the other three is that he did not serve in the previous Khurelsukh cabinet.

Only Three Female Ministers? Embarrassing!

It is noticeable that in a cabinet of 17 ministers (including the PM), there are only three women. That is abysmal and not just because it is 2020!

Notice that I had suspected before the announcement that gender balance – unfortunately – was unlikely to be a strong criterion in these selections.

This is especially embarrassing as the limit to four MPs as members of cabinet left the Prime Minister much greater choice in appointments. A number of the appointments seem to be intended to be perceived as “technocratic” appointments, i.e. the appointment of a subject matter specialist of sorts. A number of these more technocratic appointments also appear to be somewhat younger than previous ministers. Given this context, I simply do not find it credible that the Prime Minister would not have been able to find a number of women in leadership positions in the civil service or other organizations who could not have been equally strong appointments as some of the largely unknown ministers that have been appointed now.

Technocrats

It does seem like PM Khurelsukh has been responding to popular frustration with politics and party politics in particular in some of his recent choices. That was the case with his nomination of a number of new faces, but continues with his cabinet appointments where the main message in some of the appointments seems to be that subject matter specialists have been appointed.

Ironically, one of the strongest appointments in this regard is that of a woman, namely A Ariunzaya to Min of Labour and Social Protection. Ariunzaya has been chairperson of the National Statistics Office. The NSO has been a bright spot of meaningful transparency in the Mongolian government, i.e. attempts to make more data available, but also to offer that data in a form that is meaningful to the Mongolian public. While it can be somewhat complicated to coax the census database into divulging information, the NSO has also been very active in sharing infographics that bring statistical information to life for the general public. Here is an example using crime statistics:

Other seemingly technocratic appointments as Byambajav has described them in his listing:

  • Minister of Defense G SAIKHANBAYAR with his previous long career in the Mongolian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense
  • Minister of Construction and Urban Development B MUNKHBAATAR has been promoted from Deputy Minister in the same ministry.
  • Minister of Education and Science L TSEDEVSUREN has been a senior public official responsible for public administration and legal affairs at the ministry since the 1990s.
  • L KHALTAR was promoted from Deputy Minister to Minister of Road and Transport Development after a long career in the railway sector.
  • S CHULUUN was Head of Institute of History within the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and will lead the newly established Ministry of Culture.
  • Minister of Mining and Heavy Industry G YONDON is a mining engineer with over 30 years of professional experience.
  • Minister of Energy N TAVINBEKH is an electrical engineer and has had managing positions at Baganuur South-Eastern Region Electricity Distribution Network.
  • Minister of Health T MUNKHSAIKHAN was the Director of State First Clinic.

Including Minister Ariunzaya that means that we might consider half of the ministers to be subject experts.

Other Criteria

It is not clear to me that regional distribution or representation of different ethnic groups has been a criteria for inclusion in cabinet. A good number of the ministers are entirely unknown to me, so they may well be Buriat, Tuvan or some other regional group, but the names do not appear to be Kazakh, the one minority that represented politically more consistently.

Oddly (though this was no different in previous cabinets), I do not see an attempt to balance a focus on the countryside vs Ulaanbaatar in these appointments either. Through their work experience Ministers Khaltar and Tavinbekh may at least have lived outside of Ulaanbaatar for a portion of their professional lives while the remainder of cabinet members are probably firmly rooted in the capital and in the experience of urban life.

Other than Dep PM Sodbaatar (MPP campaign manager) and Foreign Minister Enkhtaivan (chief of staff for the MPP parliamentary caucus), the ministers appointed do not appear to be particularly powerful figures within the party. Party factions and power structures can be quite difficult to perceive from the (far) outside, so I may be underestimating some of the appointees in this regard, but most of them have not played significant public roles in the past. Note for example that very few of them appear to be active on social media, for example.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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